If you’re around my age and a gamer, you might have gotten wrapped up in the fight over which was “better”: the Sega Genesis or the Super Nintendo. Kids personally identified with these systems, and I can still remember all the minor developments that would cause long debates between me and my friends.
In his new book Console Wars, author Blake J. Harris went behind the scenes of the many battles between Sega and Nintendo. During our exclusive phone interview, he and I talked about how the book came about, the influence of marketing on consumers, why kids personally identified with these gaming consoles, the film adaptation, his documentary based on the book, and much more. Hit the jump to check out the interview, and click here to order the book.
BLAKE J. HARRIS: In December of 2010, my brother gave me a Sega Genesis for my birthday, the one we had when were kids, and I remember picking it up for the first time in about twenty years and being flooded with all the memories. And after the memories came the questions, “What happened at Sega? Where was Sega now? Why was Nintendo so popular until Sega came on the scene?” And with those questions I realized that video games had been such a big part of my life as a kid, and I think a lot of people my age feel the same way. Whether or not you play video games today, it was a sort of social lubricant for that time period, and an excuse to go to other people’s houses.
So I became curious about this and went to the Barnes & Noble and asked someone where the video game history was, and the person at the reception desk laughed in my face. Not only was there not a video game history section; they didn’t have a single book in the entire store that talked about the history of video games or the business side or anything beyond a walkthrough guide to the more recent games. So that sort of had me questioning “Why not?” and as I began to research more and more and see how great this story was, and how many other great stories there were about the creation of the video game industry, I became super-interested, and then what really clinched it for me was speaking with Tom Kalinske, and finding there was a character there that wasn’t just an overlord creating games. There was a human aspect to it, and that’s where the emotional side to the story came in. I worked on it for 3 1/2 years and there wasn’t a single day where I was sick of it. That’s the first time that’s happened with me for any project.
From what you’re saying, I’m gathering that when employees laugh in someone’s face, it’s a great impetus for authors.
HARRIS: I distinctly remember that if it wasn’t a full-out laugh, it was at least a snicker. I’m thinking, “You have a film history section; you have a music history section; and you have sections devoted to those, but you don’t have a single book about video game history in the store?” So that was one impetus for me.
Another strange one for me, which it shouldn’t have been strange, but I saw it that way, was I watching The Social Network around that time with my girlfriend-now-fiancée, and wondering what she thought was the cultural, anthropological connectivity that united our generation of us being in our early 30s, and she mentioned video games and playing Mario. And it just struck me as odd that girls in St. Louis had played Mario, which it shouldn’t have in any way when it was so popular. It wasn’t an experience just unique to me.
So yeah, I was shocked that Barnes & Noble nor any other major bookseller carried books like that. They do, even if there are some out there, but there are very few, and even fewer that focus on the business side and personality side. Those that focus on the history tend to focus on the aesthetic like a coffee table book or on the game development itself. But not into the boardroom that shaped our childhood.
For me, a large part of the book seems to be about marketing maneuvers: worldwide releases, mascots, etc. Given the amount of effort that was put into marketing, I can’t help but wonder: How much did the consumer really matter in this war?
HARRIS: What do you mean by that? Ultimately, it’s the consumer that matters on whether something works or not?
What I mean by that is that you have Sega consciously pitting itself against Nintendo, and making that part of it’s campaign. So in that sense, did it send consumers into this notion of a war rather than coming about organically? Was the war created in a boardroom?
HARRIS: Oh, that’s a great question, and I definitely haven’t been asked that before. Yeah, I think the war was created in a boardroom, and at Sega they probably talked about Nintendo every day. “What’s Nintendo working on? What’s Nintendo doing? How can we respond?” I guess it further cements my feeling that it was created in that boardroom, as to your question. And for Nintendo, they for a while weren’t not very conscious of Sega, and not really doing anything to stop it. And so Sega created this thing that Nintendo didn’t want to acknowledge for a long time.
So in the course of the documentary I’m working on, I’ve compiled a lot of video game trade show footage from Sega and Nintendo and other shows like E3. And Nintendo never acknowledges the name of “Sega”. They always say “our competitor,” so it’s just funny that in this war of words, Sega is willing to say “Sega Does what Nintendon’t” and go after Nintendo and be in their face. And Nintendo, over time they acknowledged Sega was a real threat, publicly they wouldn’t say their name.
Something that also struck me was that even though the war is between Sega and Nintendo, the real antagonist is Sega of Japan. Were you able to talk to anyone from that side?
HARRIS: Yeah. So going into the book, I thought it was going to be about the battle between Sega and Nintendo. Certainly, the first half of the book and the first two years with the Genesis, it was Sega vs. Nintendo. But it became a point where Sega was in the game and had established themselves as successful—and when I say “Sega”, I mean Sega of America—and in the end whether Sega or Nintendo won, it’s how you define “winning”. They both made a lot of money.
Where the battle became really interesting was the battle between Sega of America and Sega of Japan. So it was unsurprisingly very, very hard to get people from Sega of Japan to speak with me. As per their culture there, they’re usually shying away from saying anything about that. But I did get to meet [Hayao] Nakiyama-san, and have tea at his house in Tokyo, and speak with him by e-mail a few times. So I did get to see the company’s rise and fall from his perspective.
Looking at the narrative of the book, it almost looks like Kalinske’s flaw is that he was too successful. He had the foresight to go after Silicon Graphics and try to steer away from what the Saturn was going to be. Did you think he made any missteps in his direction of Sega?
HARRIS: Definitely. Like any working CEO he made mistakes on a day-to-day basis. A lot of small ones that aren’t mentioned in the book or I don’t know anything about. And then on a larger scale, there were times when Tom wasn’t very successful and Sega of Japan did things that seemingly dented Sega of America’s success. But Tom, in hindsight, could have been more conscious of that going on, and find a way to placate the situation. There were also certain situations where Sega of America was given a bad product like the 32X or even the Sega Saturn, and Tom, coming from a marketing perspective, is the strategy one there and tried to market the hell out of it. And that was costly, and it hurt the company by not succeeding whereas you look at Nintendo during that time period; in 1995, they released the Virtual Boy, which, for Nintendo of America, was thrust upon them from their parent company in Japan, and it was definitely a loss for them and not successful. But they didn’t do that wild and crazy marketing effort because they knew it was a dog, and didn’t want make the concerted effort that this was their best foot forward, and try to hit a home run with hit. They tried to hit a single and proceed accordingly.
Aside from having bad product forced upon them, do you think if the PlayStation hadn’t entered the market, Sega could have weathered the Saturn until the Dreamcast?
HARRIS: I do honestly think that if not for Sony’s entry and runaway success with the PlayStation, that Sega and the Sega Saturn would have been able to realign the ship. And maybe not beat the Nintendo 64, but at least put up a much stronger fight than they did.
And it’s not surprising that Tom left, or resigned, the year after the Saturn launch, or right at the beginning of that period’s decline, and I do not think he would have left if Sony was not there. And that’s not at all because Tom is a quitter or Tom shied away from a fight. But it’s hard to stay on the field when you look across at the other side and the other team is basically doing what you want to be doing, and your coach is telling you, “No, you can’t do that.” It was a hard situation he was in, and I think the result would have been very different if Sega had allied with Sony instead of the situation going the way that it did.
Now you spoke to a lot of people both on the Sega side and the Nintendo side, but a side effect was the rise of the gaming magazine. The journalists for these magazines were technically unbiased observers, so what did they have to say about this war?
HARRIS: They were one of my earliest and best resources because, as you say, they were unbiased, or at least close to unbiased. And given that everybody else I talked to, at least early on, was either a Sega employee or a Nintendo employee—except for Bill White [who worked for Nintendo and then left for Sega]—they gave me a different perspective. And one thing I kept hearing over and over from them, and from the retailers I spoke with and the third-party developers, was that Nintendo had them by the balls and they knew it.
I certainly agree with a lot of what Nintendo did during that time and why they did it, but there was that sense that they really did have you and were happy to take advantage of the situation at certain times. And as you read in the book, that sort of led a lot of people in the journalism community to root for a competitor, and early on they were very supportive of Sega, certainly not in a flagrant way that didn’t defy the integrity they were supposed to have and did have. But they definitely were all too happy to help Sega and really point their fingers and a shine a light on Sonic the Hedgehog and the other stuff they were doing.
But they really did have a tough time with Nintendo. Hearing them talk about how they were denied interviews or how all of the updates about the content were in [Nintendo Power]. And even the early trade shows and product shows in Chicago as well as the Tokyo Game Show, Nintendo was really protective about what they could take in and who was allowed to come near the booth. So Nintendo was a closely guarded company, and they still are in a lot of ways. So not surprisingly, journalists were rooting for Sony and Sega on the battlefield.
In your interviews, did any of your subjects give their thoughts on the current state of the industry?
HARRIS: They definitely did. Usually, it would come up at some point. So a lot of people at Nintendo it was definitely more of a family, employee-for-life kind of environment. A lot of people at Nintendo are still with Nintendo or were with Nintendo until a few years ago, so that perspective is still very much in that Nintendo mindset.
Whereas a lot of people from Sega, because their M.O. was to transform this into more a mainstream entertainment, high-tech activity, a lot moved on to other places in Silicon Valley where they weren’t as involved with gaming anymore, and didn’t have an opinion.
But they were all surprised that gaming is still talked about so much. And a lot of them also question if this is the last generation of console wars, and whether this could be the end of that part of the gaming industry.
So you think this is the end of the console wars?
HARRIS: No, I’m not saying that. These people were saying that in this generation, people want things to be bigger, smarter, faster with consoles. Personally, I don’t think it will be the end of the console wars. It might seem that way, but another generation will push things to the next level, but this point in time is very much about virtual reality, especially with Oculus Rift, recently. But I think for corporate, that’s par for the course when there’s a lot of money, so hopefully in some capacity, the console wars will keep going on for another cycle.
It’s interesting you say that because for me, the console war in your book made everything a console war where people personally indentify with a system. So this is a two-part question: First, what did you think it was that made people start to personally identify with systems where if you said something like “Sega sucks,” it would make someone angry?
HARRIS: That’s an excellent question, and there have been a few questions that’s I’ve really thought about over and over, and more philosophical questions in my writing, and that was one of them. I was a kid back then, and I don’t think I have some nostalgia-colored glasses, but I remember it being real that between Sega and Nintendo, you really had to choose. And people, like you said, like if someone wasn’t a Sega person, I was personally offended. It wasn’t, “Oh, this is something I have nothing to do with.”
So personally, what I was writing about, was the Wild West days of the industry, and with that, it wasn’t just kids choosing sides. It was third-parties choosing sides; retailers choosing sides; every aspect of the business choosing sides. Which led to much more exclusive content on certain consoles, and it seems like every step of the way people were choosing sides.
I think, additionally, what I mention in the book is that games were almost like the modern day, secret society for kids. And because we were the first generation to really embrace that I realize that was happening whereas that wasn’t the case with the Atari. We really wanted to identify with one or the other. I remember as a kid that it was almost like a political party; my heart and soul was dedicated to one or the other. There was no grade; there was no black and white. I also remember, not so much at the time, but having thought that this was the first time in my life I had actually identified with a brand and having feelings about. Because in my experience, I had a Sega Genesis, but previously had a Nintendo, and suffice to say I was probably more of a Mario kid, but I wanted to be a Sega kid. I wanted to be cool and hip and edgy, and I wanted to identify with Sega, and that’s the first time I ever remember feeling that way. It was not something I felt when I bought Nike or Reeboks. It was something special and different about video games.
So does the consumer define the brand or does the brand define the consumer in this case?
HARRIS: Specifically in the case of Nintendo, and even more specifically in the case of Sega, it was the brand trying to define the consumer, but that doesn’t always work. I think what made Sega successful and their high batting average in making it work was first with the “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t”, but then really hitting their stride with Sonic as a metaphor for the company as well as a mascot, and then with their “Welcome to the Next Level” campaign. And while it’s true that corporations like to believe it’s true that they’ll turn something popular and how it will be perceived, there’s an extent to where that doesn’t work anymore, and you can see that with the 32X and with the Saturn. There were a lot of talented, creative people working on the marketing for that, but it didn’t have the same result and that’s because what they were trying to sell was not being accepted on one level and then in the perception of what they were trying to sell.
HARRIS: What side were you on?
I was on Nintendo’s side. That was the console I had.
But I was never that passionate. I never got to where I would get angry at a Sega owner. It was more like, “Oh, I have a friend who has a Nintendo, and I hang out more with him than I do with the friend who has Sega.” Not that I only judge my friends based on this attribute. But looking at message board, it looks like console wars still exist no matter the generation like PlayStation 2 vs. Xbox. It seems like Microsoft and Sony took over the war, and I’m wondering if you feel the same way.
HARRIS: They definitely took over the war, and Nintendo is still in there, but they aren’t doing nearly as well as they once did, and not as well as they hoped to be doing. But yeah, it’s obviously Microsoft and Sony now and it has been since the Xbox really came out. But like I said, it is different because while the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are certainly very different systems in certain ways, I don’t feel like they are all-encompassing, defining systems of buying one or the other. I think they offer very similar things and very similar experiences. They’re not exactly the same; not at all. But the experience of having a Nintendo or Super Nintendo or a Genesis offered a very different experience twenty years ago than what Microsoft and Sony offer now.
How did Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and James Weaver get involved first in terms of Rogen and Goldberg writing the forward, and then all three in the movie deal?
HARRIS: It was a wonderful twist of fate and surely one of the best things that’s ever happened to me in my life. I got really into the curiosity behind this in December of 2010, and then throughout 2011 I spent months researching and realizing this was something I wanted to do, and then speaking with Tom. Then for seven months I spent time tracking people down and uncovering the story. Then later in 2011 I got the sense that this was a really incredible tale.
Previously, in terms of writing, I had only done screenwriting. But I had a really good manager in Julie Rosenberg, and had met with James Weaver, but certainly never at the level of Seth and Evan. But my goal throughout all of this was to tell the story to a mainstream audience. Certainly, it’s a story about gaming and would be appreciated by gamers, but the way that I tried to frame the story was that so my grandma or someone who didn’t know anything about video games, and try to reach that kind of audience.
Seth, in my mind, became the perfect person to try and reach out to, and would be a great connection between gamer culture and nerd culture and mainstream culture. And after some Googling, I discovered that Seth was a huge, old-school Nintendo fan. So I wrote up about a 25-page treatment that sort of organized the story. And then my manager Julie Rosenberg brought it to Sony Pictures, and then James Weaver got on board and brought it to Seth and Evan, and then in January I met with them in their office in Los Angeles. And we spent a couple hours just chatting about the story and video games and what we had played. And by the end of that day they had called Julie back and said they wanted to be involved in producing a documentary based on the story and also producing a feature film based on the book I was writing at the time.
And what is the status of the documentary?
HARRIS: So the documentary is something Seth and Evan are producing along with Scott Rudin, and I’ve been directing with my business partner. And so far, in the last year, we conducted long interviews with 15 people, the main people in the story, and finished our initial set of interviews last year. Our last one was Howard Lincoln, former Chairman of Nintendo of America. That was done around Thanksgiving, and so we’ve been in post-production for the last few months. And we’ve been working with Seth, Evan, and Scott to refine the story. And so we’re in the middle of that process. The interviews were wonderful, and it was also nice that after speaking with these people for years to also get to spend a day or two with them and go through their normal routine. So we’re in post-production right now and hoping to have something ready to go by the fall.